Office Space
Creative Commons License photo credit: WallTea

Last week, photo sharing community Flickr, responding to a member suggestion, enabled code that blocked Pinterest users from pinning photos where the photographer has turned off sharing options or marked a photo as private or adult.

Though VentureBeat reported the story initially, Aaron Hockley has the most concise, accurate run down of the move (which I found through Flickr member Jake Rome).

The code that Flickr integrated was introduced by Pinterest just two days prior to the suggestion being made, in an effort to address dissatisfaction with how the service manages copyright infringement.

Flickr’s move should serve as a catalyst for photography forums and online communities with photo gallery areas to carefully consider how you integrate with Pinterest, if at all, and what areas of your community that you give them access to.

The Problem with Pinterest

I see the potential in Pinterest (I have an account), especially when it comes to ecommerce sites. Even so, I am deeply conflicted by them because I find their approach to the rights of others to be very troubling. Here’s why:

  1. When you click the “Add +” button on Pinterest, you are encouraged to “pin images from any website” (emphasis mine).
  2. They copy full size, complete images (not thumbnails). They reproduce the entire work, strip out the meta data added by the photographer and reserve the right to sell the work.
  3. Even when a license for an image is clearly denoted, such as on Flickr where every image has a license, they do not respect the license, in either their usage of the image or the attribution required.

Let’s discuss each of these three issues, briefly.

“Pin Images from Any Website”

It is one thing to allow people to upload photos and another to actively encourage them to reproduce photos that they find on “any” website. As Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today said in his excellent article about Pinterest’s copyright issues, such a stance may lead to a test of the Grokster ruling, which found the file sharing service liable due to their encouragement, or inducement, of infringement.

The Reproduction of Full Photos

Some may claim that Pinterest qualifies under the fair use exception to copyright law. But, as an attorney told Business Insider, this defense pretty much falls apart when you consider what Pinterest actually does. They copy and reproduce the entire work in full. It is going to be an uphill battle to argue fair use when you copy the entire work and compete with it on search engines and elsewhere.

There are those who say that Pinterest is the same thing as scrapbooking. This comparison fails, though, when you realize that Pinterest competes with the original image, since it reproduces it. Pinterest boards are not private creations shared with a group of friends, as most scrapbooks tended to be. They are generally public, indexed by search engines and viewable by everyone. A Pinterest board isn’t a scan of a bunch of images that were glued together. Each pin is a high quality, reproduced image.

As both Jonathan and Sean Locke point out, their use of full images likely means that they do not benefit from the Perfect 10 v. Google ruling, which allowed Google to serve thumbnails in search results. Pinterest doesn’t serve a thumbnail, they serve a full size photo.

This is not something that, for example, Facebook does. Take any link with a big photo on it. Now, try to add the link on Pinterest. You’ll see the options for the photos from the linked page in their full size. Next, try to post the same link on Facebook. Facebook will automatically pick an image for you and it is a thumbnail. There is a reason for that.

Pinterest’s Disregard of Licenses

Flickr is actually a great example of how Pinterest is taking too many liberties. Every photo on Flickr has a license that is plainly displayed and has fairly straightforward principles. Whether it is the standard “copyright, all rights reserved” or a Creative Commons (CC) copyright based license. “All rights reserved” means just that, while the CC licenses allow for varying levels of more flexible usage. The Creative Commons licenses can be easily read and they even have standard forms of citation that you can use to credit the photographer when you reproduce one of their images.

This blog is powered by WordPress and I use a plugin called Photo Dropper. You see the image at the top right of this article? That’s how I found it. The plugin allows me to specifically search Flickr for images with a CC license that allows for commercial use. It then inserts the image into my post and automatically attributes it in a way that meets with Flickr’s Community Guidelines and with the Creative Commons license.

Because of this, it seems reasonable to suggest that Pinterest could have read that same license data that the plugin uses and either blocked the image or properly attributed it, in line with Creative Commons licensing. Instead, they didn’t do any of that. They disregarded the licensing.

This begs the question: If some freely available WordPress plugin can do it, why can’t a company that has received at least $37.5 million in funding?

Pinterest and Your Community

With this understanding, what should you do with Pinterest on your community? What are your options? You can add a “Pin It” button to your site to encourage people to pin content, you can block Pinterest users from pinning your content, you can do nothing at all or some mix of those three.

What made Flickr’s move great in my eyes was that they understand their community. Photographers and creative people who often care about how their stuff is used. It doesn’t matter what Pinterest users think – it matters what Flickr members think. They defended their community. What made Flickr’s move even greater was that they gave their members the option. If you want people to be able to pin your photos, turn sharing on.

Similarly, don’t forget that your decision in this area, as the leader of your community, is tied to two things: what you are comfortable with, legally and ethically, and what your members are comfortable with. If you have a community of photographers who post their work on your forums, do you own their photos? Unless your terms of service say so, you don’t and having that in your terms of service is a bad idea, anyway. So, then, do you feel comfortable encouraging pins of your member’s photos, meaning reproduction of their work, on someone else’s website?

I can only speak for myself and say that no, I would not be comfortable with that. Not to look in the mirror and not out of respect for my community. The photos that my members post are not mine to encourage redistribution of. Due to that, I wouldn’t be adding a “Pin It” button on general, member contributed photos.

Like Flickr, you could also give your members the option to opt-out or, perhaps better yet, to opt-in to Pinterest via a post or individual photo level setting. I think that giving your members the choice is probably the best way to go. They could have an option in their profile to set their default setting, as well. That way, they can decide if they want their full photo reproduced on Pinterest. That’s the big deal here. That’s why it is very different from a Facebook “Like” button or a Twitter “Tweet” button. A like is going to show a thumbnail and a tweet is just going to show the title or the page or a description by the person sending the tweet. A Pinterest pin shows the whole thing.

If you want, you could also choose to tie that opt-out or opt-in to the display of a “Pin It” button with the individual piece of content. While this functionality may not exist by default on your chosen community software, it wouldn’t be complicated to write up and you should request it on the official and/or unofficial resources dedicated to your platform.

Different types of content may require different handling. Pinterest’s greatest potential may be with ecommerce sites that have product images that are usually meant for mass distribution. So, if you have product reviews with product images that are meant for distribution, maybe it makes sense to have a “Pin It” button there.


People will point out that if Pinterest users want to get around the opt-out or whatever you try to do on your forums, they will. They will screenshot an image, download it themselves and upload it and, in those cases, there will be no link back to the community. It’s a good point.

However, it doesn’t mean that a photographer is wrong to not want their photo on Pinterest or that the person who copies their image is right for disregarding the photographer’s wishes. It doesn’t really change the dynamic, which is that you need to care most about your memberbase and the rights that they have to their work. That reflection should guide you.